• Plant soon, or wait until spring. Look to plant your tree in October, or hold off until next April or May. Avoid chemical fertilizers, and instead spread about an inch or less of compost in a 3- or 4-foot radius around the tree in the spring.
If you're planting this fall, put a metal cage around the tree so rabbits won't eat it.
• Prune precisely. "Keep the trees pruned so you get sunlight throughout the interior of the tree. It helps keep the tree dry," explains Don Jantzi, veteran organic orchard manager at the Rodale Institute. "After rainfall, the more sunlight, the more quickly it dries out. Good air drainage means less fungus growth throughout the tree."
January and February are the best months to prune apple trees; just don't ever prune in the fall. To prune, first remove broken and dead branches and then move on to remove any branch that is crossing and rubbing on another one. "You want as many branches as possible growing horizontally, rather than upward," says Jantzi.
Travis also suggests pruning horizontal sets of limbs every foot or so up the tree.
• Be patient. It takes three years to get fruit production, but to maximize your tree's apple output later, pull all fruit and flowers off the tree the first two years. Even when your tree is in full production mode, in midsummer, yank off apples that look blemished or look like they're home to worms. Keeping six to eight inches of space between each piece of fruit is key to reducing disease when you're growing organic apples. It will also help your tree produce bigger apples.
• Meet for fruit talk. "There are new varieties coming out all the time, making it fun," says Jantzi. "Small groups meet and share experiences and tips. It helps everyone. Latch onto a backyard fruit-growers group in your area. Now's the time to gather, share ideas, and learn."
• Don't look for false "perfection.""An apple with a few scars on the outside still makes a good pie and a good sauce. A perfect fruit is really the problem. Learn to deal with a few blemishes. Cut out worms and discard," says Travis. For apple recipes, visit the Rodale Recipe Finder.